Editor's note: This article appears in the February issue of Spurs & Feathers magazine. To subscribe, visit here.
The stories about Kelsey Oh and her persistent work ethic are abundant.
How last May, the South Carolina pitcher and teammate Cayla Drotar were in The Roost on an off day when Oh told Drotar she was heading to Beckham Field for a bullpen session. “Girl, my arm is about to fall off,” Drotar responded. “What are you doing?”
But Oh wanted to work on controlling the speed on her infrequently-used changeup.
The stories about Oh and her desire to prove doubters wrong are just as abundant.
How, at 10 years old, she was told by her travel ball coach she wasn’t going to pitch.
“She pitched every day before practice, before the coach got there, before games, and then finally towards the end of the year he needed a pitcher. And he asked her if she could pitch,” Kelsey’s dad Ken remembers.
“She went in there and dominated.”
When she arrived at South Carolina in 2018, Oh went 14-5 with a team-best 1.92 ERA and 135 strikeouts and was named an All-SEC Freshman honoree. But, with a nagging right ankle injury, she went 5-5 with a 3.73 ERA last season.
Now, with a four-pitch repertoire (including the now more-frequently used changeup), a drive for perfection and that desire to prove doubters wrong, those around Oh think she will have her best season yet on the college level.
The junior won SEC Pitcher of the Week after going 3-0 with 22 strikeouts and a 0.47 ERA during the team’s opening weekend.
“I think Kelsey has done a great job preparing both her body and mind,” Gamecock head coach Beverly Smith said. “I think that’s always a challenge for athletes who are injured, coming back and the doubt that creeps into their mind. Are they ready? Are they good enough? Are they healed?
“… She really came out and had an outstanding fall and hasn’t stopped since then. She’s throwing harder than she did last year. She’s going to be fun to watch.”
After the sensational freshman campaign — she threw a season-best 13 strikeouts in a seven-inning win over UNC Greensboro to open the NCAA Tournament Columbia Regional — Oh had what she called “a little strange” sophomore season.
During the team’s season-opening tournament in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, she tripped on a curb and sprained her right ankle. She initially thought it was a minor injury but later found out ligaments were torn.
She did as much as she could to rehab, evening pitching from her knees.
“It was definitely difficult, because I’m a go, go, go all the time person,” she said. “So it was kind of hard to dial back.”
It was also hard to deal with psychology. Oh wanted to practice so much. “Can I throw with a boot?” she thought. “Is that allowed?”
“It was definitely hard, and I really struggled with it a lot,” she said. “But I think it only made me better. An injury is inevitable in a sport you practice every single day, whether it’s big or small. I think the adversity I faced with my ankle will help me. It has already helped me.”
It was estimated Oh would miss two months, but she came back in one.
Though she returned and had some success — she threw a complete-game three-hitter against Ole Miss — Oh never felt 100 percent back. The injury lingered, and she had to adjust her mechanics around it. She used braces and taped the ankle just to pitch.
“Whatever I could,” she said. “Anything to win. I dealt with some pain, but I really wanted to be a part of last season. It was hard.”
CALL IT A COMEBACK
Oh told Spurs & Feathers at the end of January that the injury has only made her stronger, both physically and mentally. She took a few weeks off after the season and reflected.
In that reflection, she realized how hard she was on herself and how she pushed herself “to the brink, practically, just to succeed.”
She felt 100 percent by July 2019 and felt “back” by early September.
“She’s got a new pitch. I don’t want to say what it is, but I think she’s going to surprise a lot of people this year,” Ken Oh said. “I think she’s going to far exceed what she did her freshman year, for sure. Her speed has gotten better. … It’s hard to believe that she’s throwing that hard.
“I think you’re going to see Kelsey Oh 2.0.”
Oh divulged to Spurs & Feathers what that pitch is.
“I’ve been working on a changeup forever,” she said. “But I’ve been focusing on that, and really all of my pitches, and getting them better.”
Those practice sessions, on days like the one she told Drotar about in The Roost, could finally pay off.
“I don’t know if I’ve found [a changeup], but I’ve been working very hard on it,” Oh said. “We’ll see how that hard work turns out. I feel confident with it.”
Kelsey Oh’s goal-oriented mindset and hard work may be genetic.
Ken Oh’s parents were first-generation American from South Korea and owned a successful Japanese restaurant in California. When Ken moved to New Jersey, he himself opened a Japanese restaurant, called Daruma, and ran it for about 18 years.
Every day Ken picked Kelsey up from school and ran her through pitching workouts before heading back to work. “That was seven days a week,” he said. “There were no days off.
“But Kelsey’s self-driven. She’s so motivated.”
When she was 9, Ken explained to Kelsey that other young athletes were out there working just as hard as her, so she needed to work even harder. So most days Kelsey threw for three hours and hit for two.
“Softball clicked,” Ken said. “One time she laid out for a ball and threw a girl out from her knees and I said, ‘This is the sport. This is it.’”
Oh played T-ball, lacrosse, competed in gymnastics and even acted for a bit growing up, but her love was always softball.
Now, her stage is the circle at Beckham Field.
Oh shied away from setting personal expectations for herself this season and instead said she would “love to play in the World Series and do whatever I can for my team to succeed.”
Most importantly, though, she’s having fun again.
“I’m super excited,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a great year.”